Diversity, Education, K-12 Education, Lessons, Mrs. Bryant, Mrs. Della Bryant, Public Speaking, Self-Determination, Self-Doubt, Sixth Grade, Teaching and Learning, William H. Holmes Elementary, Writing
We’ve reached the end of yet another school year, number 32 for me overall, between my twenty-two years between kindergarten and doctorate and my son’s ten years of K-9 (this doesn’t included the 13 years of overlap, in which my primary job has been as an instructor, or my wife’s two years of grad school). The end of sixth grade was not particularly violent. But it was a rough transition to nearly eight years of bumps, bruises, grinding poverty and psychological torture, and a constant struggle for my true self.
The one strong and calming influence in the midst of this gathering storm system was my sixth grade teacher at William H. Holmes ES, Mrs. Della Bryant. She was the fourth of my four Black teachers between first grade and middle school. Mrs. Bryant was as important to me on the cusp of becoming a teenager as Ms. Griffin was to my grounding as a student in first grade, and the crush I had on Mrs. Shannon in third. Because Mrs. Bryant didn’t just aspire for us to do well and get A’s. She wanted us to think big picture, and not just about high school or college. Mrs. Bryant encouraged us to think in larger, worldly terms, to take politics and religion and literature and the stuff of intellectuals seriously.
She indulged us, especially me and my then best friend Starling. So many times that year, Mrs. Bryant allowed us to debate current event topics in class, whether we had sufficient facts or not. The Iran hostage crisis, the 1980 election cycle and why Ronald Reagan would be worse than President Jimmy Carter (no one in our class played devil’s advocate), the legality of Israel unilaterally bombing an Iraqi nuclear weapons centrifuge site.
Those were among the moments I lived for in Mrs. Bryant’s class that school year. I lived for them not just because I liked showing off my knowledge. I already knew I was smart. I spent the following year saying “I am the smartest kid in the whole world!” to myself, and occasionally, to Humanities classmates who made me feel inferior.
No, those debates weren’t about my raw analytic power and great ability to remember. They were about discovering what I thought I knew about a topic, understanding what I didn’t know, and being able to articulate it all without losing my thoughts in the ether. And in all that, I discovered parts of myself. My forthrightness. My New York-style sarcasm. My sense of righteous anger. My ability to summarize a situation in order to derive or intuit possible responses, even solutions.
That was what Mrs. Bryant with her light but steady touch helped me get to in sixth grade. A sense of enlightenment that could survive the false gods of Hebrew-Israelite-ism, the false father of my then idiot stepfather “Judah ben Israel” née Maurice Washington, and the fallacy that I had any control over my world.
But that wasn’t all Mrs. Bryant helped me do that year. She encouraged me to take on other projects, especially contests. Like posters for Dental Health Month, or participating in Election 1980 activities, and journaling and writing down my thoughts about virtually everything. Mrs. Bryant did me the honor of having me introduce our graduation speaker at the end of sixth grade, nearly 37 years ago. It was a two-minute speech, but it was also in front of a couple hundred people. I don’t think I’ve even been as nervous being on radio or television. Most of that stuck with me for years, somehow surviving through years of crumpled neglect.
Mrs. Bryant was the one who shepherded me into the Humanities Program, something that I’d only heard about once before, inadvertently through Brandie Weston (who was a student at Pennington-Grimes) the year before. With my grades and test scores, I probably could’ve made into the Grimes Center a year or two earlier. That is, if my teachers Ms. Pierce and Mrs. O’Daniel had thought of me that way. But in the big scheme, it wasn’t that important. Mrs. Bryant did think of me that way, and went out of her way to say as much. “Mrs. Bryant’s encouragement, her insistence that I was ‘one of the best students’ she ‘ever had,’ made sixth grade a joyful time,” I wrote in my memoir.
Now, despite Mrs. Bryant, I wasn’t prepared for going to school every day with 150 other know-it-all’s, many of whom would never have to worry about Con Edison bills being overdue or having no food to eat for three or four days at time. Or, the constant threat of domestic violence and abuse at home. Heck, between Humanities’ decided demographic affluence and ideological Whiteness, I doubt that most of my eventual classmates worried about anything other than getting A’s until puberty took full hold.
As I wrote in Boy @ The Window, “Mrs. Bryant never warned me that Humanities would be overwhelming because my social skills outside of Holmes were as well developed as a spoiled seven-year old’s.” I simply didn’t handle the transition from a 98-percent-Black elementary school to the mostly White Humanities program very well. Then again, with so much going wrong at home, I didn’t handle much of anything well in the 16 months after sixth grade.
But one thing I carried from my year with Mrs. Bryant was that I could survive and succeed despite it all. To observe and listen, and not just speak off the cuff. To be patient, and keep working. Frankly, it was likely because of teachers like Mrs. Bryant that I discovered my first superpower, my ability to think, remember, and write. And in that discovery, bury the pains of earlier abuses that would’ve surely killed me (or at least, led to a successful suicide) by the time I turned fourteen. Mrs. Bryant, wherever you are, and whatever you’re up to, I say, with love, many, many thanks!